Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Children, Family, Community

In every state in America there are infant safe haven or so-called "Baby Moses" laws, laws which allow a child to be dropped off at designated safe places when the parent can't or no longer wants to take care of the baby. While these laws have their critics, I believe that they are well-intentioned, designed to give desperate parents a way out, in an effort to reduce child abuse and infant homicide tragedies that so often make the headlines. I can't imagine being a parent in that situation, but I think it would be heartless to assume that these parents don't love their children or don't care about them; there can be many pressures, internal and external, that can lead to a crisis where a baby must be given to others to care for and raise him or her, and the laws make it possible for parents in these terrible circumstances to take their baby someplace safe.

Unfortunately, when the State of Nebraska designed a law like this one, they forgot one crucial detail; they forgot to define the word "child." The consequences have been amazingly sad:

Of the 17 children relinquished since the law took effect in July, only four are younger than 10 -- and all four are among the nine siblings abandoned by a man September 24 at an Omaha hospital.

On Tuesday, a 14-year-old girl from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was abandoned at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs. The case marks the first time a parent has crossed state lines to abandon a teenager in Nebraska, authorities said.

"The few situations we've seen so far demonstrate the need for a change in Nebraska's safe haven law," Gov. Dave Heineman said in a statement Monday. "In the coming legislative session, I will advocate for changes that put the focus back on protecting an infant in danger. That should be our priority." [...]

When it was introduced in the Legislature, the bill had a presumed age limitation of 72 hours, said Todd Landry, director of the state's Division of Children and Family Services.

"The original intent was to protect infants from the immediate danger of being harmed," he said. [...]

The Omaha man who left his nine children, ages 1 to 17, at Creighton University Medical Center was overwhelmed by the sudden death of his wife after the youngest child was born, he told CNN affiliate KETV.

"I was with her for 17 years, and then she was gone. What was I going to do?" Gary Staton said. "We raised them together. I didn't think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn't take care of them."

Staton is just the kind of parent whom safe haven laws fail to help, Johnson said.

"He was grieving, he didn't have a lot of money, and all those children -- he was trying to figure out how to feed them, how to clothe them, and deal with the grief of losing his wife. He needed help," she said.

I think this is the kind of thing we see happen when the sense of community that was once a feature of our nation has unraveled to the point where the safety nets people once had no longer exist. The grieving widower who abandoned his nine children, the woman who could no longer help her nephew--they are symbols of people trying to do alone that great work of raising children which used to require--no, not a village--but a large, extended family, and a thriving community of neighbors who cared enough to lend a hand when someone was in trouble.

The thing is, I still think that kind of community is out there, and our nation is still full of people with generous hearts and loving natures. In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans lined up to help however they could; after Katrina families opened their doors to total strangers. The will to come to the aid of those in need has never vanished.

But so often, we don't know who is in need. We don't know whose life is getting more and more desperate by the minute, or which parent who says "I don't know what to do with him anymore. I'm afraid for him, that he'll end up dead or in jail," really means it. We don't know which kids, indoctrinated since kindergarten to believe that they are wiser and freer and more noble than their parents and thus shouldn't accept their authority, have become the sort of teenage anarchists who expect their parents to feed and clothe and shelter them, to provide everything, to clean up all the messes the children leave behind even when that involves trips to the principal's office or restitution to neighbors whose property has been carelessly destroyed--all without giving anything in return but more trouble and more heartache. We don't know which parents have foolishly or fearfully bought into the notion that discipline equals id-squashing or child abuse and have thus never placed any limits, to the point that the cute boisterous two-year-old has become the surly delinquent thirteen-year old who is rapidly becoming a danger to himself and others.

The answer, as the authorities quoted in the article have said, is not to allow parents to abandon their teens. Safe haven laws weren't designed to take care of troubled young people or parents who have been widowed or divorced and suddenly don't know what to do. There are other ways for these problems to be addressed--but the best way of all would be for us to start saying "Hello!" to the people in our communities, to ask how they are doing and really want an answer, and to be willing to give of ourselves when we can help. It's true that some teens may need far more than this in terms of psychological help, and for that government aid may be necessary; but one of the reasons we have problems like these is that we've gotten used to expecting the government to do what the people are not only better at doing, but uniquely capable of achieving: reaching out to our neighbors in the exercise of brotherly love, letting them know we care, and encouraging them to persevere by helping them in any way we can.

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